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Florida Supremes facing retention votes in 2012

A $300,000 campaign is underway to educate Florida voters on the importance of knowing all the facts before they elect appeals court judges as well as Supreme Court Justices on the November ballot. But, as Sascha Cordner reports, the initiative to let Floridians know about the state’s judicial merit retention elections comes just as conservative opposition is mounting against three Supreme Court Justices.

For about the last four decades, Florida has had a merit retention system that allows voters to decide every six years whether to keep or reject Supreme Court Justices and appellate judges. And, if they get more “no” votes than “yes” votes, then the Governor can appoint a new one.

But, polling shows about 90-percent of Florida voters are unaware of the system, and skip that section on the ballot.

So, the Florida Bar partnered with groups, like the American Bar Association and the League of Women Voters to announce the start of a new campaign to educate voters about merit retention elections:

“We believe in promoting fair and balanced and fair and balanced information is essential to assist voters in Florida in making informed decisions about the election to retain the justices and the 15 state appellate judges.
Scott Hawkins is the President of the Florida Bar. He says an informed decision includes voters looking at a judicial track record as a whole, and not basing their decision on just one ruling. He says it’s important to realize that judges get about 8 to 9-thousand cases on their desk per year.

Hawkins also kicked off the campaign with the help of the person who helped start the judicial merit retention process back in 1970s:  Former Governor Reuben Askew, who is known as the Father of Merit Retention in Florida.

The first merit retention election was held in Askew’s last year in office in 1978. Askew says it’s a great process that helps keep politics out of the courtroom, but it wasn’t always that way.

“Before the 1978 elections, appellate judges were expected to campaign. They had to defend themselves against other candidates, but then face criticism for campaigning for the office, which by its very nature was expected to be separated from political pressure and consideration.”

Askew says that practice called into question a judge’s ability to be impartial, which he says continues to be debated among the public today regarding the judicial selection process.

And, Jesse Phillips is among the people who’ve been questioning a judge’s ability to be impartial. He’s the head of Restore Justice 2012, a grassroots group that’s been campaigning around the state to educate voters about merit retention and help voters see what he calls the “judicial activism” among most of the state Supreme Court Justices.

“The phrase that you might here is ‘legislating from the bench’ where the court essentially becomes a small lawmaking body that is tweaking and changing the constitution instead of just making sure that it’s followed.”
Restore Justice initially sprang out of a campaign to unseat two Supreme Court Justices Jorge Labarga and James Perry, after they helped remove a proposed constitutional amendment from the ballot in 2010.  That amendment could have blocked the federal health care law from taking effect in Florida.

The plan didn’t work, but Phillips says the group is now focused on the remaining three members who were a part of the 2010 majority ruling: Supreme Court Justices Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente, and Peggy Quince.

“Essentially eight weeks before the election, they disenfranchise every voter in the state by telling us that we can’t vote on this issue that our lawmakers and our Representatives wanted us to vote on. So, for a court to take that liberty, I think people need to know about that.”

Phillips says it’s also questionable that the Supreme Court Justices have raised half a million dollars for the upcoming November retention election, which he says is 6 and a half times more than any politician has raised over the first quarter of this year.

Dan Stengle agrees that it is unusual for Justices to raise such an amount, but the lawyer representing the Justices in their merit retention campaign says it’s warranted after they’ve drawn such active opposition from groups like Restore Justice.

“These justices have a group saying that people should vote against them, and they’re basing their opposition on statements that are largely not true, and the justices need a forum to educate the citizens of Florida about who these Justices are, what it is they do for the citizens of Florida, and why they merit return to office on the Supreme Court, and that’s an expensive proposition.”

The Justices are also facing criticism from some who claim they took an hour-long recess and illegally used court employees to notarize paperwork for their campaign just before the deadline passed for them to qualify as candidates. Stengle says they violated no laws, and it’s universally been done that way.

But, Representative Scott Plakon is not so sure. He’s calling on Governor Rick Scott to ask the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate.

“Nine newspapers reported that on the surface it would appear they violated the law. So, no one should be above the law in the state of Florida. Not a Supreme Court Justice, not a governor, or anyone else. So, this is a very simple request, that FDLE just take a look at it, and if they take a look at it, and find no problem, then no problem!”

Plakon denies his efforts have anything to do with the Justices ruling against his constitutional amendment in 2010 regarding the federal health care reform,---Especially, he says, since it’s coming up as Amendment One in 2012.

But, groups, like Progress Florida, say it’s a form of retaliation by extremist Republican lawmakers. The group’s spokesman Damien Filer says they are also asking people to sign a petition to tell the Governor and the Florida Legislature to stop their attacks on the judicial branch.

In the upcoming November election, Floridians will have a chance to vote on the three Florida Supreme Court Justices and the appellate judges from their area in the merit retention elections.

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.